Posted in Blog, Review

Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

TL:DR

Deep Work is worth spending the time to read if you are willing to examine your workflow and habits to maximize your effectiveness. Deep work is hard and takes practice to maintain for longer periods of time. Find what works for you and stick to it. Adjust as your life changes and be aware of the impact of stress, etc. The info is valuable regardless of where you are career-wise but recognize that the nature of your position will impact how much you can implement things in your work life.

Quick book review…

I have spent a lot of time working on my time management, efficiency, and understanding how I work best. If you haven’t spent time figuring these things out for yourself, I highly recommend taking some time to do so. Find a planning system that works for you, figure out when you have peak mental function, etc. I believe in working hard, but I believe even more in working smart. This is something that Cal Newport has also invested a lot of time in.

Deep Work focuses on dealing with distractions to an extent. This book goes in depth to distinguishing deep and shallow work and the value achieved through both. He provides some ideas about how to maximize your capabilities and focus more on deep work. He also covers the difficulties associated with deep work. One of the key factors addressed is distraction. I don’t necessarily agree with the conditions he places for being distraction free – but that’s just a function of our brains working differently. The concept, however, is critical. I think the concepts can be applied to many fields, but it is especially relevant to cybersecurity. It can be really easy to focus on the shallow work (like clearing low level alerts) and neglect the deep work (building a solid program). A big chunk of the book is dedicated to working through the rules for deep work and enough examples are given to help you apply the information to your specific temperament and environment.

Application

A book like this doesn’t do a lot of good if you don’t take it beyond the pages. Finding a way to set aside time for deep work is absolutely vital. And also incredibly difficult for many professions. Security analysts can’t say alert triage will be done for X hours per day and X hours will go for other responsibilities. Ignoring alerts isn’t really an option. Given the current state of cybersecurity and breaches, the pressure to treat every alert like it’s potentially career ending is very real. So how do you apply these concepts within the reality of the profession?

I do think scheduling out your day is a good first step. Adjust as needed as you go through the day and do this for at least a few days to get an idea of your time. Then you should be able to get a better idea of where you can make time for deep work. Be very conscious of how much time email takes up. Unsubscribe, etc as much as you can. And find a way to be at peace with not being able to respond to every email. Getting off social media or limiting it is another big one. I think in cybersecurity, that can be a double-edged sword. InfoSec Twitter contains a wealth of information. But it’s also easy to get sucked into the cesspool. Set a timer, clear data so you have to log in every time, or find something else that works for you to keep your time on social media focused and not infinite scrolling. The book also talks about minimizing shallow work, which I do think is important. However, I also recognize that many of us may not have that much control over limiting shallow work. As a college professor, yeah, you can do a lot to minimize shallow work. It’s a little different in a more standard work day. See what you can eliminate, but recognize some shallow is likely going to remain. If you are in a position to help your direct reports reduce shallow work, look carefully at the options and see what can be done. There may have to be some adjustment of expectations, but the ROI is likely worth it.

Probably the biggest takeaway someone should have is to figure out a ritual that will drop you into a state to accomplish deep work. This is absolutely vital. All of the sports psych stuff that I’ve done helped a lot with this. If you are struggling with figuring this out, checking out some of the sports psychology books on peak performance can be really helpful. I benefitted from In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick. That one has a definite sports focus, but also addresses life in general. If you don’t care for the sports flavor, I enjoyed Mindset by Carol Dweck and Grit by Angela Duckworth. Regardless of the approach you take, being able to essentially flip a switch and drop into a productive workflow is an invaluable skill. The downside of ritual can be feeling like you have to do the ritual to be productive. Be aware as you are developing your ritual that you may not always be able to follow it fully if it’s very long or complicated.

Last thoughts on application is that deep work is taxing. It’s hard. Being able to sustain deep work for long periods of time will take practice. There may be times when you are less capable of deep work because of other stress going on in your life. I’ve found it important to have ways to be productive that require differing levels of mental focus. That can help improve the return on your more shallow work when you genuinely may not have the capacity to do extended deep work. You have to be willing to have the hard conversations with yourself to determine if you are truly fried and approaching burnout or just being lazy.

Note: I haven’t included links to the books here other than Newport’s website. All can be found on the platforms you would normally buy books. Also consider checking your local library for these. I’ve been able to get many of the books I’ve read recently on e-book from the library.

Author:

Lifelong paradox - cyber sec enthusiast - loves to learn

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